5 Long Term Frauds That We Should've Noticed WAYYY Earlier
Most types of fraud seem like they would be easy to spot. If a man asks you for money, and he is followed by a similar-looking man in a plastic mustache asking you for even more money, there's a good chance that they might have been the same guy all along. But despite our seemingly impenetrable knowledge of how to catch cheats (and how to recognize artificial facial hair), scams often go undetected. And sometimes they go undetected for a ludicrously long amount of time. You know, like how ...
A Family Lived With A Mummy For 30 Years For Petty Pension Fraud
Sogen Kato was the oldest man in Tokyo. This was no mean feat in a city of 13 million people, so some officials thought they'd drop him a visit -- you know, the usual flowers and awkward congratulations for having outlived most other people on the planet. However, Kato's octogenarian daughter was having none of it, saying that Sogen was in a vegetative state and in no condition to see visitors. Technically, only one of those things was a lie.
The officials were rebuffed whenever they contacted the Kato family for an audience, and the excuses grew stranger each time. Before long, they said that Sogen had actually joined an obscure sect of Buddhist monks to turn himself into a living Buddha. Since that seems like the kind of grandpa badassitude you'd normally lead with instead of a hackneyed "vegetative state" excuse, the officials grew suspicious. In 2010, when Sogen supposedly turned 111 and the daughter once again declined an audience, they finally had their fill. So the police turned up at the Kato residence and found the family happily living under the same roof. Well, the remaining family. Sogen was nowhere to be seen ... that is, until the officials noticed a locked door. Behind that door was a small room. In that room was a bed. In the bed was the small, mummified corpse of a man who had died in 1978. "Yo, Sogen! Also, everyone else, what the fuck?"
Yep, Sogen had died in the 1970s at the ripe age of 79, but his relatives didn't feel like telling anyone so they could keep collecting his pension checks. Since he had had the good sense to drop dead in his own bed in a closed room, they'd done the logical thing and just ... left him there in his pajamas. For three freaking decades, Sogen's daughter's family lived in a house with the goddamned mummy of their patriarch, going about their lives and pretending that nothing was even remotely awry and that there totally wasn't an old dude turning to dust in their guest bedroom. If that wasn't enough for Sogen to haunt their asses from this life to the dozen next ones, the fact that they did this for the total financial compensation of a relatively measly $106,000 definitely should be.
But the craziest thing is that there's no telling how many Japanese families are currently Weekend At Bernie's-ing with a grandparent's mummy. Since the country traditionally reveres its elderly, Japan pooped a massive terror brick when Kato's story hit the news. The government immediately started looking into its database of suspiciously elderly citizens who no one remembered seeing around in a while, and managed to uncover a whopping 230,000 "missing" old folks, at least one of them reaching 186 years old. (Which he obviously isn't, unless he's a Highlander. And if that's the case, well, let's just say that there are bigger fish to fry than just making sure that someone isn't collecting his pension.)
Moral of the story: Just when you think Japan can't get any crazier, the fuckers whip out hundreds upon thousands of households with spare beds that may or may not come with a complimentary ancestor mummy.
Related: Mummies Got Packed With Mummy Snacks
A Man Cheated The Chinese Government With A Nonexistent Fuel Pill For A Decade
"A humble bus driver invented a way to turn water into fuel" sounds like the the start of an investment pitch that ends with a disconnected number and an explanation to your children that they don't really need a pesky college fund anyway. For Wang Hongcheng, though, it was the beginning of a thoroughly undeserved life of fortune and luxury.
Sometime in 1983 or '84, Hongcheng, an amateur chemist with no scientific background, introduced a pill which he claimed could turn water into a form of fuel similar to petrol. This was obviously a huge deal, and China certainly treated it as such. Before long, Hongcheng was drowning in funds from various government agencies and "other sources" -- which, this being 1980s China, were presumably just other, shadier government agencies. Hongcheng funneled these funds into his brand-new "Hongcheng Magic Company," gaining many supporters wanting to hop on the sweet, sweet water-to-fuel train. All of this generated him a fortune in the $37 million range. That's a lot of money for a product that you just told people about.
And that was the hitch: Hongcheng had no product. At all. His whole sales pitch was promising an impossible thing that he had precisely zero ways to invent. And he was scamming the freaking Chinese government. In normal situations, that's an equation that doesn't bode well for your physical health, but Hongcheng had lucked out. His tall tale had struck a superstitious nerve, so he had garnered a number of rabid supporters whose belief in his product far surpassed the fact that he had yet to present any physical evidence which proved that the non-thing he was shilling was real.
Unfortunately for Wang (man, that's a great name), even bullshit can't survive the passage of time. As the 1990s rolled in, the government started growing wary of the increasing influence of pseudoscience and superstition. Real scientists started turning their attention to Hongcheng (or more likely, were finally free to do so), and one disparaging 1994 article in the country's influential Science And Technology Daily magazine later, his fake fuel empire was good for prosecution. I tried to find out what happened to Hongcheng after he was inevitably imprisoned, but I think we can all agree that even if the details were there, we'll probably be better off without them. Still, he accomplished a dream that is truly universal: getting treated like a king for achievements that you just fucking made up.
A Man Fools The Art World For Years With Obviously Fake Bullshit
As a man who once claimed that the return of Twin Peaks couldn't possibly be a good thing, I know that criticizing art is a great way to shoot yourself in the foot, the face, and the groin somewhere down the line. However, sometimes just blindly appreciating art for the sake of it can be even more dangerous. This was aptly demonstrated in 1924, when Paul Jordan-Smith, an LA-based writer, decided to steamroll the entire art world by inventing tons of absurd bullshit and seeing what happened.
Already disillusioned with modern art, Jordan-Smith developed a full-on grudge when his wife's still life paintings were dismissed as "old school." One day, as a private joke, he picked up a brush for the first time in his life and spent a few minutes pooping out a goofy painting of a lopsided native woman waving a banana. He dubbed his masterpiece Yes we have no bananas, kept it around the house to terrorize the rest of the family and use as a fire screen, and promptly forgot all about it ... until one day, a visitor started raving about the painting and comparing it to the work of famed impressionist Paul Gauguin. This gave Smith an idea. After he suppressed a mighty chortle, he took his stupid painting and entered it into New York's Exhibition of the Independents at the Waldorf-Astoria. This painting, which looks like the work of a drunken racist in the first grade:
To see just how far he could take his semi-accidental prank, Jordan-Smith gave his piece of shit an appropriately pompous title, Exaltation, and presented it as the work of an obscure Russian artist named Pavel Jerdanowitch, the inventor and only representative of a school of painting known as "Disumbrationism." And he made sure that he wouldn't accidentally fraud anyone by giving the painting such an absurdly high prize tag that no one in their right mind would buy it. To his surprise and delight, the art circles swallowed the unlikely story whole. "Jerdanowitch" was revered as a master of his craft, and galleries asked for more paintings to exhibit. "You've got to be kidding me," Jordan-Smith no doubt thought, but he crapped out another, even worse painting in any case. Again, it was praised to high heavens, reproduced by revered art magazines, and followed by requests for more paintings. At this point, Jordan-Smith ran out of fucks to give, and just started submitting straight-up boners.
"I call it 'Choke On A Dick, Art World.'"
Of course, at this point Smith had gotten so ridiculous that he was immediately caugh- Hahahahaha! I can't even finish that sentence. Of course no one suspected a thing. In fact, we'd probably still be gawking at vintage Jerdanowitch dongs if Jordan-Smith hadn't grown bored of his charade in 1927 and revealed his accidental snowball of a hoax ... on the front page of The LA fucking Times. Some say that the art world is still scrubbing the egg off of its face.
A Gang Sells A Nonexistent Car (7,000 Times)
In 1997, a 23-year-old security guard called Roberto Gomez turned up at a Baptist church in Compton, took to the pulpit during announcements, and told the congregation that his rich, deeply religious relative had unfortunately passed away. Aww, that blows, let's pray, amen, etc. HOWEVER, said relative had left him an estate with a number of very serviceable low-mileage cars, and said in their last will that Gomez needed to "gift" those cars to fellow devout Christians. All he required was a modest $1,000 advance per car to cover the title transfer and taxes, and you too could be the fine owner of an automobile that a complete stranger had vaguely described to you. Any takers?
Yeah, it was a scam. The soon-to-be-famous Miracle Car Scam, to be precise. It was such an obvious con that the most surprising thing about it was that the ghost of Eazy-E didn't immediately turn up to kick Gomez in the dick for inadequately inspired hustling. But something about the story resonated with the churchgoers. A man of faith wants to posthumously distribute his wealth? Shit, not taking up the offer would basically be flipping the bird at a gift from God. So a few people bit. And a few more. And a few more still. Gomez and his gang took their con to other congregations. Eventually, pastors, car dealers, and other people who seemed to know their religion and/or cars took the bait, which added credibility to the operation. Things started expanding at a Big Bang pace, and the gang's fleet of fictional cars grew and grew ... to a total of 7,000, which they "gifted" to over 4,000 people over four years, to the tune of $21 million.
It's not that their plan was great. It was a pretty basic advance fee trick. The main reasons it worked were that they blatantly lied that the cars' details were in court-mandated lockdown (which prevented anyone from making checkups and removed the need to fabricate documents), and plain old brass balls (they regularly interacted with disgruntled "customers," providing a form of customer support and even refunding when necessary). There were approximately 4,000 ways the plan could've gone awry at any time -- a suspicious cop, or a buyer who noticed that the gang's list of cars included barely any details beyond "car of model X, cheap," for instance. In fact, the ultimate reason the gang was busted was a delightfully random Fargo thing in which a small-town police chief in Missouri (yeah, this scam went all over the country) got suspicious of the huge number of weird car deals in her town and started digging. Yet somehow, thousands of people fell into the trap, lured in by promises of virtually free mid-range vehicles, and they were prepared to wait for years on end, apparently.
What really makes this one for me is the way the four-member gang just pigheadedly pushed forward, even to a point where they were clearly way over their heads. Juggling a flipping 1,000 customers per dude, all growing increasingly dissatisfied as years go by, with no guarantee that absolutely everything doesn't go belly-up at a moment's notice? Fuck you, let's actively seek for more. That's the kind of attitude the world nee-
Oh, right, these were criminals. Nevermind. Moving on.
Two Men Spend Years Developing An Obviously Fake Machine For An Oil Company
In hindsight, the Great Oil Sniffer Hoax absolutely, positively shouldn't have worked, especially not to the tune of 50-200 million dollars (depending on who you ask) in pure profit. Yet somehow, two dodgy dudes managed to convince the French Elf-Aquitanie oil company that they had developed an impossible device, and then waltz all the way to the bank with zero scientific credentials and even less credible proof that said device worked, or for that matter even existed.
In 1965, Belgian Count Alain de Villegas and his Italian cohort Aldo Bonassoli started developing desalination technologies in Switzerland. Their tech soon proved to be a complete dud, which may or may not have had something to do with the fact that neither of them even remotely resembled a scientist: Bonassoli was a former TV repairman, and the count, oddly, was an actual count. They both shared a considerable enthusiasm for things like alchemy and UFOs, but being super into extraterrestrials doesn't necessarily translate into any usable knowledge of, well, anything. Not ones to be deterred by mere failure and inexpertise, the two soon started developing a device that could "detect new freshwater reservoirs from the sky" ... at which point it was only a matter of time before they asked themselves "Hey, wouldn't that technically apply to all sorts of liquid reservoirs?" And so my second-favorite buddy cop movie ever, Bonassoli And The Count, leapt into Act II.
In 1976, the men started marketing their brand-new invention, a revolutionary plane-mounted "sniffer" device that could detect -- all together now -- oil fields by just flying above them. Delighted at the prospect of removing all the There Will Be Blood bullshit from their operations, Elf-Aquitanie jumped at the chance to grab the technology. They were so happy about it, in fact, that they ate an immeasurable amount of shit in their scramble to get a functional sniffer. Throughout the research, Bonassoli (who acted as the chief "scientist" while de Villegas took a more passive role) adamantly forbade the involvement of any actual scientists at any point of the process. Yet despite his secrecy and constant failures to produce anything approaching a finished product, Elf-Aquitanie bombarded him with lucrative multi-million-dollar contracts. You know, as you do.
This may have started out because the technology was obviously a top-secret gamechanger that the company couldn't risk it falling to other hands, but come on. A year or so of a former TV repairman funneling away your cash might be acceptable. Elf-Aquitanie took until freaking 1979 to smell the coffee. At that point, they finally brought in top nuclear scientist Jules Horowitz, who took roughly 0.2 seconds to debunk the whole device. When Bonassoli told him his machine could detect a metal ruler from behind a wall, Horowitz took the ruler and hauled ass around the corner. Bonassoli's device printed out a perfectly clear outline of the straight ruler ... whereupon Horowitz emerged holding the real ruler, which he had secretly bent into an L shape. At that point, I assume Bonassoli shrieked at him, transformed into a bat, and flew away, swearing vengeance.
By the time the story exited the vaults of governmental secrecy and went public in 1983, it became a national scandal, especially when it turned out that the people who had gotten duped by Bonassoli and the count included former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing and former Prime Minister Raymond Barre. By then the count had already quietly disappeared into whatever paradise island counts go to after they've earned countless dirty millions. As for Bonassoli, the worst he got was a few accusations and dirty looks. He happily waltzed back to his native Italy, where he ... stayed completely in the open, maintaining that he never made any money out of the ordeal (sure, guy) and even trying to peddle the exact same fucking device to the Italian government. And that's a lesson for all of us: When one door closes, beat on the closed door of a neighbor until they tell you to fuck off too.
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